The question of ethical robots was featured in a Nature news article on the 1st July. This included input from Alan Winfield and Michael Fisher discussing the work that is being done as part of the Verifiable Autonomy Project.
Lego Rovers Evolution is a public understanding activity funded by the Strategic Technology Facilities Council (STFC). It is based on an activity Louise Dennis takes into schools in the North West where she uses Lego Robots to introduce children to ideas from autonomous systems, robotics and artificial intelligence.
The STFC, together with Manchester University, sponsored a marquee at Cheltenham Science Festival and we got the opportunity to take a version of the activity along. The marquee was called the DinoZone and centred around two casts of Dinosaur skeletons borrowed from the universities of Oxford and Manchester. Normally, when working in a school, Louise presents the Lego Robots as versions of Mars Rovers. Clearly, for the DinoZone, they needed to be Lego Robot Dinosaurs!
While we already had the robots, we needed to find funds to pay for travel and subsistence for the people working on the stand. Cheltenham Science Festival lasts for six days, so in the end 9 people were involved: Louise, Michael Fisher and Maryam Kamali from the Verifiable Autonomy Project, Elisa Cucco from the Reconfigurable Autonomy project, Ipek Calliskanelli from the Virtual Engineering Centre at Daresbury labs, and 4 PhD students from the Department of Computer Science at Liverpool University. The Centre for Autonomous Systems Technology at Liverpool put up some of the money and the rest came from places like this Verifiable Autonomy project.
At the start of the week we had two robots with legs as well as several with wheels but, unfortunately had to abandon these. The way they were engineered to walk on four legs, using only two motors was fascinating, but sadly they simply weren’t strong enough to take the strain of hundreds of children racing them up and down the table.
Over the space of 6 days, the team on the stand spoke to over 2,000 people. The vast majority of these were children who had great fun driving the Lego Robots around the custom made table and experimenting with a simple line following algorithm from robotics. For people with a little more time and interest, we were able to discuss the functioning of sensors and give them a taste of rules’ based artificial intelligence programming. Several people wanted to discuss issues of safety and reliably which allowed us to talk about the work this project was doing.
We had a lot of fun and the feedback we got was very positive. While we may not do something as big as Cheltenham Science Festival again, we do hope to take the Lego robots to museums, and other local events in future, in order to demonstrate the basics of autonomy and, hopefully, spark of discussions about current research.